Why Pakistan Army’s change of guard means nothing

Gen Asim Munir (left) takes charge as the new chief of Pakistan Army from Gen Bajwa (right). (Representative photo)

Superannuation is inevitable in all government organisations, and the armed forces are no exception. Yet, the impending retirement of a Pakistan Army chief invariably becomes a major discussion point for the media with endless debates on who is likely to emerge as the next top man of the army. And when the name of the new incumbent is announced, the media swiftly shifts its focus to prognosing on what Pakistan, in particular, and the world, in general, can expect from the new incumbent.

So, why does a scheduled change of Pakistan Army chief become such a fiery topic of discussion? The answer is simple- though it calls itself a democracy, Pakistan has the dubious distinction of being referred to not as a country with an army but an army with a country! No wonder Forbes magazine had ranked Gen Bajwa as the world’s 68th most powerful person in 2018, and mentioning that “Although the president [of Pakistan] is his boss on paper, Pakistan’s chief of army staff is de facto the most powerful person in the nuclear armed state.”  

As such, deliberations on ‘Who After Gen Bajwa’ were expected. However, this routine affair became contentious, thanks to the unprecedented approach adopted by the key players. Normally Islamabad announces the name of the new chief a month or more before the current army chief is due to retire, but it didn’t happen this time, and this gave rise to wild speculation and sent the rumour mill into an overdrive.

A fortnight before Gen Bajwa was due to retire, Pakistani media reported that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif was seeking an amendment to Pakistan Army Act [PAA] 1952, which would give him the authority to retain any serving army officer through a simple notification.

With ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan having crossed swords with the army and using uncharitable sobriquets such as the ‘establishment’ and ‘the neutrals’ in a derogatory sense, Sharif’s bid to get PAA amended was seen as a move for exploiting the Khan-Bajwa rift to his own advantage. And with Gen Bajwa publicly denouncing Khan’s political manoeuvres (albeit without naming him), speculations of Gen Bajwa’s service being extended gained more strength.

Now that Lt Gen Asim Munir has been named as Gen Bajwa’s successor, media focus shifted on how he will discharge his duties as the ‘uncrowned’ King of Pakistan. This again has become a contentious issue-thanks to Gen Bajwa’s farewell speech on ‘Martyrs Day’, in which he admitted that the Pakistan Army is “often made the subject of criticism [and] a major reason for this is the army’s interference in politics for the last 70 years, which is unconstitutional.”

Gen Bajwa also went on to disclose that “… the army, after great deliberation, [has] decided that it would never interfere in any political matter,” and went on to say, “I assure you we are strictly adamant on this and will remain so.” Since the Pakistan Army has (by Gen Bajwa’s own admission) been unconstitutionally interfering in politics for seven decades, whether or not Gen Munir will walk Gen Bajwa’s talk has naturally become an issue of intense debate.

Some analysts opine that the herculean task of restoring Pakistan Army’s plummeting image will compel Gen Munir to ensure that the army stops interfering in politics, and this is certainly the most logical option. However, there’s a catch- once Rawalpindi loosens its grip over politicians and political parties, there’s no way it can re-establish its extra-constitutional control over the legislature and other organs of the state.

That’s why despite Gen Bajwa waxing eloquent on how Pakistan Army is “strictly adamant” about remaining apolitical in future, Gen Munir is unlikely to walk his predecessor’s talk simply because abandoning the domestic political arena would make things very-very difficult for Rawalpindi. Let’s not forget that even though the Pakistan Army enjoys unbridled power in the country, its highhandedness during Gen Bajwa’s tenure came under severe criticism from several quarters, be it civil society, rights groups, media and even the judiciary!

It’s no secret that Rawalpindi is Pakistan’s ultimate judge, jury and executioner. Its ‘kill and dump’ policy in Balochistan has attracted widespread criticism worldwide, while international rights groups like UN Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and ‘Reporters Sans Frontières’ [an international non-governmental organisation safeguarding the right to freedom of expression] has repeatedly condemned Pakistan Army’s intelligence agencies for the rampant abductions and physical abuse of media persons who are critical of the army.

Accusing the army of being the biggest “land grabber” in Pakistan, the judiciary has gone to the extent of sarcastically stating that the Pakistan army controlled “DHA [Defence Housing Agency] of Karachi have encroached so far into the sea. If they had their way, they would build a city on the sea. The owners of DHA [Pakistan Army] would encroach on the entire sea all the way to America and then plant their flags there. The owners of DHA are wondering how they can make inroads into India!”

Besides the “land grabber” observation, the judiciary has also gone on record to remind Rawalpindi that “The uniform of the army is for service and not to rule as a king.” In this regard, the Supreme Court of Pakistan pointed out that even though members of the armed forces aren’t entitled the grant of residential plots, “Nevertheless, senior members of the armed forces get plots and agricultural lands and continue to be given additional plots and agricultural lands as they rise up the ranks.” 

Lastly, by contending that “1971 [Indo-Pak war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh] was not a military, but a political failure,” Gen Bajwa has once again rekindled unpleasant memories of Pakistan Army’s dismal war performance record. To make matters worse Pakistan Army’s inability to Baloch freedom fighters and terrorist groups like TTP has left the people of Pakistan disillusioned. They are questioning as to why despite apportioning a major chunk of the national budget and indiscriminately using draconian laws to brutally crush opposition, Rawalpindi still hasn’t been able to combat home grown terror or subdue secessionist groups.   

So, it’s amply clear that by allowing other state institutions to exercise their constitutional authority Pakistan Army would come under the legal ambit of accountability and give up the numerous illegitimate perks and privileges senior army officers enjoy as well as surrender its illegal commercial assets created on defence land. For ensuring uninterrupted good health and prosperity of senior officers, it’s essential that Rawalpindi remains at the helm of affairs.

Pakistan Army chiefs may come and go and while doing so, make several impressive promises. However, at the end of the day, it’s ultimately the strong instinct of organisational preservation that prevails and thus for any army chief, scaling down Rawalpindi’s authority over other state institutions is nothing less than sacrilege. That’s why the chances of the Pakistan Army keeping away from politics is as remote as the probability of the sun rising from the West.

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